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Board takes second look at casino tax issue

11:48 PM, Sep 27, 2011   |    comments
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By Casey Nolen

St. Louis (KSDK) - The fight over casino taxes in St. Louis county will now likely head to the state. And the chairman of the St. Louis County Council is calling for an investigation into the county assessor's method of assessing the casinos.

County assessor Jake Zimmerman originally raised the property value assessment for River City Casino and Harrah's Casino for 2011.

River City went from roughly $270 million in value to $284 million. Harrah's increase was much larger from $119 million to $502 million in assessed value.

The casinos appealed to the Board of Equalization and actually had their assessments dropped below 2010 levels.

The board slashed River City to $164 million in value and cut Harrah's to $215 million.

That had school and fire districts scrambling to make up potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost property taxes - especially in the Lemay fire district and Hancock School District which depend heavily on River City Casino.

But Tuesday, the county Board of Equalization reversed its decision on River City - bringing the casino's value back to 2010 levels.

Board members put the blame for the back and forth on county Zimmerman. They say new methods, by the newly elected assessor, tied their hands and stacked the deck against the casinos.

"I think we've been put in a pretty precarious situation here. Politicians are the only ones I know who create problems and then campaign against them," said Chair of the Board of Equalization Leslie Broadnax.

"I couldn't care less about the politics of this," says Zimmerman. "The only thing that we ought to be worried about here is the fair market value of these properties and making sure the tax payers are treated fairly."

The reversal on River City means residential tax payers will avoid what could have been about $200 more in annual taxes.

It is likely River City will appeal its new 2011 property values since Zimmerman's office says the casino appealed the same value at the state level in 2010.

"I'm glad they did what they did," Zimmerman said of the board's decision on River City. "I wish they would have done the same thing for the taxpayers is Pattonville. But at least they've corrected most of what was obviously an injustice."

Pattonville schools and fire fighters depend on revenue from Harrah's Casino and the board stood firm on its assessment of Harrah's.  However, the casino will still pay more than previous years.

Zimmerman's office says St. Louis County has under-valued Harrah's for years, and hired an independent consultant to determine its value in relation to Ameristar Casino which sits across the river in St. Charles County.

An attorney for Harrah's says the two are not comparable and a higher tax rate could mean the casino will invest less in the property in the future by way of improvements and amenities.

As for the investigation of the assessor's methods initiated by the county council, Zimmerman says he welcomes the oversight.

St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman released the following statement to NewsChannel 5:

"This has always been about the education of our kids, the safety of our communities, and doing what is fair for the taxpayers of St. Louis County. I am pleased that the Board of Equalization recognized this principle and took a solid step in the right direction this afternoon.

"There is no one in this county who believes that a casino that was worth $270 million last year is somehow worth $164 million this year. I am glad that the Board has decided to reverse their River City Casino decision; it was the right thing to do - not only based on what is fair for the people of Lemay, but also based on the facts.

"While I would have liked to see the Board also reconsider their position on Harrah's, it is my hope that today's decision means that both of these cases will now go before the State Tax Commission, which is the appropriate venue in which to deliberate these kinds of complex commercial assessment disputes.

"The bottom line is that the stakes are just too high for the school districts and fire districts to make decisions on these casinos based on a 30-minute hearing - because if you make a bad ruling, it is the families and businesses of St. Louis County who pay the price."


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